Dr. Sarah Boston's touching and at times heartwrenching book Lucky Dog, about her own experience with thyroid cancer, is not your typical cancer memoir. The twist: As a veterinarian who works with cancer almost daily, cutting it out of cats and dogs for a living, Boston has a unique perspective. We asked her about her experience and the difference between animal and human health care.
You deal with sick dogs that have cancer every day and you yourself had cancer. What have you learned from the dogs in terms of a trait human cancer patients should have when it comes to dealing with the experience?
I think the most important thing these patients can teach us is that they really live in the moment. They don't have anxiety about their mortality, they don't worry that they could have cancer and, really, as long as I'm doing my job and keeping them comfortable and focussing on their quality of life, they're pretty happy.
You bring up the idea that pets have an inherent advocate in their owner. Can you tell me how people can apply it to their own care?
That's definitely a major theme in the book, that you need to either be your own advocate or have an advocate. Ideally, if you have a friend or family member who has a medical background that is the best way to go because they can know all the questions to ask and they can help you understand your diagnosis and help you sift through all the information on the Internet to see what's the best information.
So getting better health care requires being more proactive as patients?
Yeah, absolutely, I really believe that strongly. You cannot be complacent about your health or think that things are just going to work out for you. You've got to really take charge of your own health.
The book is very honest but harsh about the Canadian health-care system. Some people might say, "Well, you know that waiting a long time for diagnostics and treatment is the price you pay for socialized medicine." How would you kind of respond to that?
I think there's part of that that's true and I still will always believe very strongly in socialized medicine. I don't live in Canada right now, but I'm a very proud Canadian. There are things we could do to make the system more efficient and to give better care.
What are some of those things?
Giving better information to patients. I had to look around for my own information and, because I'm a veterinarian, I could know which was the best information to read for myself. But I think a lot of people don't know that. Simply providing a handout on your disease would be extremely useful, or links to websites where you could find good information about your disease, and I don't think that costs extra money or takes a lot of extra time.
I also think that some of the people I came into contact with weren't that caring. We need to put the caring back into health care. I had an experience at the radiation clinic that I went to – the receptionist wouldn't even look up and acknowledge that I was there. She had her head down and said, "Put your card in the box," and I thought, "Wow, this whole waiting room has people with cancer in it and some of them have pretty bad cancers." It doesn't cost money to look up, smile and say, "Yes, you're in the right place and we're going to be with you shortly." There's a lot of things like that that could improve our system.
Bottom line: Do you think that pets get better health care than humans?
I think in some ways they do. Definitely it's faster, it's more efficient. It's not as sophisticated as the Canadian health-care system, but there's a real focus on quality of life that I think we also might be lacking in our system.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Transcribed by Helen Pike.